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English Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore

April 9, 2018

I have no idea what language I’m speaking anymore.

Let me give you a little background. I’m from Virginia, so obviously my first language is English. Like many American students, I’ve taken Spanish since middle school and totalled about 6 years of language classes. So I have a pretty decent grasp on the Spanish language, even if my conversational skills need a little help. It would have made sense for me to study somewhere in Spain, right? And yet, I didn’t.

So here I am, in my 9th week in Rome, Italy. Whenever I told people where I was going, I got “well the languages are similar, you'll be okay.” I learned that is a completely unhelpful response. Yes, Spanish and Italian are similar, but they are still completely different languages! Some words are the same, like the one for house (casa), but almost everything is very different.

I’ve been travelling like crazy, and I know a lot of study abroad kids don't come abroad with the intention of doing that. Nowadays, what language I have to speak next weekend is as commonplace of a worry for me as what currency I have to use. Never before in my life have I woken up and had to literally Google what language I would be encountering by the end of the day (like Maltese…. what?!)!

I finally got to visit Valencia, Spain this past weekend, extremely excited to try my Spanish skills. And in classic style, I got into the cab at the Valencia airport and said “Ciao, buonasera” in perfect Italian. Awesome, so close.

So switching between languages isn’t like flipping a switch. I don’t know why I thought it would be! But learning both Spanish and Italian has helped me learn a ton about languages as a whole and how they are structured. And I’m kind of proud of myself for just diving into a completely unfamiliar language and culture, it’s an awesome experience and I’ve proved to myself that I’m adaptable and capable to thrive with literally zero preparation in an unfamiliar environment. I may not be able to speak in conversational Italian, but I’ve learned enough to get by and I’m incredibly proud of myself for trying.

Once, in Rome, I went into a market to buy strawberries. I was very confused about where to pay, and a lady came up to me and asked me something in Italian that I didn't understand. I asked “where do I pay?” in English, and she stared at me blankly for a good five seconds. After we stared at each other and blinked for a beat, all I could think of was “....fragole?”. That just means “strawberries” in Italian. The lady laughed good-naturedly and showed me to the man selling strawberries. I walked out of that interaction laughing and slightly embarrassed, but proud of myself for putting myself in that situation and making it out unscathed!

Classic uncultured American kid, I never expected language to be something I’d worry about. It’s the first time in my life I haven't been able to eavesdrop, communicate freely, or ask for directions with ease. A ton of people in Europe speak English which is a huge blessing, but asking for directions and ordering food can still be incredibly daunting.

If I have one message, it’s that studying in a place where you don’t speak the language is a little scary but also very doable. Every college student has the resiliency and the smarts to learn enough to get by. I wouldn’t advise going in to the situation assuming that everyone speaks English and will bend to your will. Try to speak the native language, if you’re in a decent-sized city, many people will speak English to help you as a last resort! Even if they don't, miming and trying synonyms always helps! You walk away from each confusing and frustrating interaction stronger than the last.

I’ve begun to learn that language is just a means to an end. We all see things in similar ways and want the same things no matter what language we speak. People are incredibly kind to you if you humor them and attempt to speak Italian, even if the only word you know to ask for help in a market is “strawberries”. It’s been amazing being so lost in a new culture, and I highly recommend it!

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